One of the twentieth century's most accomplished classical musicians, Wendy Carlos has influenced modern music and its technology in countless ways. During her career she helped to develop the world's first electronic synthesizer and then, performing on the new instrument, recorded what was then the bestselling classical album of all time. After undergoing gender reassignment surgery in 1972, Carlos has since rewritten a great part of her history as a man.
Born Walter Carlos in 1939 in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, Carlos was the first of two children born to her working-class parents. By the age of six, Carlos was taking piano lessons, expressing a strong interest in both musical and scientific endeavors. Her first composition, Trio for Clarinet, Accordion, and Piano, was written at age 10, and at 14, she won a Westinghouse Science Fair scholarship for building her own computer. While her childhood accomplishments were tremendous, not all was well with Carlos; she struggled with confusion about her gender long before she had the faculties to understand her unique biological makeup.
Carlos finished high school and enrolled at Providence's Brown University to study music and physics in the late 1950s. During her tenure at Brown, Carlos discovered electronic music, and upon receiving her bachelor's degree in music and physics in 1962, she moved to New York City to complete her master's degree in music composition at Columbia University's Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center. Under the tutelage of master electronic composers Otto Luening and Vladimir Ussachevsky, Carlos immersed herself in tape machines, oscillators, and any other electronic noise-making devices that she could find, often working late into the night on her compositions.
She made some rudimentary recordings with electronic oscillators at the school, and her contributions to the Columbia-Princeton Center's compilation record Electronic Music were panned when a review ran in The New York Times. "The least imaginative [selections] are the two pieces by the American, [Wendy] Carlos," wrote Howard Klein. "[S]he has followed a prevalent and bad example of combining so-called natural sounds with electronic ones."
After taking an editing job with the Gotham Recording company, Carlos befriended Robert Moog, a musical-instrument engineer who at the time was working on crafting an electronic synthesizer. Carlos began assisting Moog on his instrument, providing a much-needed musical perspective on its design. Upon the machine's completion in 1967, Columbia Records commissioned Carlos to record an all-Bach album using only the brand new Moog synthesizer.
Up to that point, electronic music had largely been relegated to academic and avant-garde art circles, never breaking into the mainstream. But with the help of Moog and producer Rachel Elkind, the album Switched-On Bach was born—and, along with it, electronic music as it is known today. Switched-On Bach won three Grammy awards and went on to become the best-selling classical record released up to that point. As well, it spawned a number of "Switched-On" imitators, flooding music stores in the late 1960s and early 1970s with torrents of electronics-drenched lounge records of varying artistic quality. In any event, the album cemented the Moog synthesizer's place in musical history and influenced a generation of electronic experimenters to come.
Focusing solely on studio work for the new few years, Carlos released more albums in the vein of Switched-On Bach, including Brandenburgs, Volumes 1 and 2 and The Well-Tempered Synthesizer. In 1971, Carlos began collaborating with Stanley Kubrick on another monumental work, the soundtrack to the film A Clockwork Orange. She worked with Kubrick again in 1980, on his classic horror film The Shining.
The following year, in 1972, Carlos underwent a sex change operation and became Wendy Carlos. When artists of the stature of Stevie Wonder and George Harrison, enamored of her pioneering musical work, came to meet her, she ignored their calls and more or less went into hiding. She took to low-profile outings such as eclipse chasing, during which she would be out of the spotlight, visiting far-off places like Siberia and Bali.
The influence of her new hobby showed through on an innovative 1972 Carlos recording, an ambient excursion entitled Sonic Seasonings. The album was Carlos's first original work and was composed in four movements representing the four seasons. Mixing synthesizers with nature sounds, Sonic Seasonings is considered one of the first recordings in the New Age genre. Fearing media reaction to her sex change, Carlos released this record, and others, as Walter Carlos.
The 1980s saw Carlos in a period of great experimentation, primarily in the developing field of digital technology. She composed the soundtrack to Disney Studios' visually innovative science fiction film Tron in 1982. A reviewer for Remix magazine described the influence Carlos's work on Tron exerted over the upand-coming electronic music scene: "[Tron ] was one of the starting points for the digital futurism of techno and early electro, providing both visual and sonic markers for early rave and hip-hop cultures."
Carlos's 1984 release Digital Moonscapes featured orchestral sounds that were digitally replicated with computer synthesizers. As well, samplers and MIDI-controlled instruments worked their way into her studio and were especially evident on Carlos's 1988 collaboration with "Weird Al" Yankovic, a parodic send-up of Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf.
While recording hardly any original music in the years to come, Carlos devoted herself seriously to the re-release, and in some cases rerecording, of her older work. In 1992, 25 years after its release, Carlos revisited Switched-On Bach with new technology. Using modern computer software she was able to achieve authentic Bach tunings, a feat unimaginable with 1960s technology. Almost all of her albums were reissued on the East Side Digital label. As many of the records were now out of print, music enthusiasts reveled in the chance to hear these discs re-mastered on CD.
East Side Digital put out a four-disc box set of all of Carlos's Switched-On recordings made from 1968 through 1980, and followed it up with a reissue of The Well-Tempered Synthesizer and with By Request, a collection of Carlos covers that had been requested by her fans. A Keyboard reviewer in 2001 praised the reissue of The Well-Tempered Synthesizer, pointing out that "the tasteful colors and imaginative interpretations are almost mesmerizing enough to make one forget what few of us realized at the time—how incredibly difficult this kind of electronic orchestration was on the primitive equipment she was using."
For the Record . . .
Began playing piano at age 6; studied music composition at Columbia University's Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center; met Robert Moog, inventor of the modern synthesizer; recorded Switched-On Bach, 1968; composed film scores including A Clockwork Orange, 1972; The Shining, 1980; Tron, 1982; rereleased catalog on East Side Digital label, 1990s-2000s.
Awards: Grammy Awards, Album of the Year, Classical; Best Classical Performance, Instrumental Soloist or Soloists; Best Engineered Recording, Classical; all for Switched-On Bach, 1969.
Addresses: Record company— East Side Digital, P.O. Box 7367, Minneapolis, MN 55407, phone: (612) 375-0233, fax: (612) 375-9580, website: http://www.noside.com/esd/. Website— Wendy Carlos Official Website: http://www.wendycarlos.com.
Despite the renewed interest in her older recordings, however, Carlos never quite reentered the music scene as an artist of current interest. While much of her pioneering work set the standard for all the electronic musicians who followed, her lack of original output after the 1980s eventually forced her into comparative obscurity.
Switched-On Bach, Columbia, 1968.
Switched-On Brandenburgs, Vol. 1, Columbia, 1969.
Switched-On Brandenburgs, Vol. 2, Columbia, 1969.
The Well-Tempered Synthesizer , Columbia, 1969.
Sonic Seasonings, East Side Digital, 1972.
(Soundtrack) A Clockwork Orange, East Side Digital, 1972.
(Soundtrack) The Shining, Warner Bros., 1980.
(Soundtrack) Tron, Disney, 1982.
Digital Moonscapes, East Side Digital, 1984.
Beauty in the Beast, East Side Digital, 1986.
Secrets of Synthesis, East Side Digital, 1990.
Switched-On Bach 2000, East Side Digital, 1995.
Tales of Heaven & Hell, East Side Digital, 1998.
Switched-On Boxed Set, East Side Digital, 1999.
The Well-Tempered Synthesizer (with bonus tracks), East Side Digital, 2001.
Switched-On Bach (with bonus tracks), East Side Digital, 2001.
Switched-On Bach II, East Side Digital, 2001.
Switched-On Brandenburgs, East Side Digital, 2001.
By Request, East Side Digital, 2001.
Keyboard, December 2001.
New York Times, July 18, 1965.
People, July 1, 1985.
"Wendy Carlos," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (January 18, 2004).
Wendy Carlos Official Website, http://www.wendycarlos.com (January 20, 2004).
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